The week leading up to the bi-annual match between Real Madrid and Barcelona is traditionally filled with fevered expectation. The match is previewed from every possible angle, and everyone—from public figures to people on the street—is asked their opinion.
This season, is no exception. The media obsession with Saturday's Clásico is just as intense as ever, but this time it is focused on two of the protagonists: Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
The focus on Messi should come as no surprise given his spectacular recent form, specifically his four goals against Arsenal midweek. Even Madrid's sports tabloids took a break from talking about their team to recognise the young Argentine.
Maradona also chimed in, saying that if Messi continues like this, he could go on to be better than himself and Pelé, finally ending the debate about the two.
Ronaldo has not been as consistently excellent as his Argentine counterpart, but has been a key figure in Madrid's best ever league performance. The strike partnership he has formed with Gonzalo Higuain is on pace to break the record of 48 goals set by Hugo Sanchez and Emilio Butragueño two decades ago.
And so it goes, "The Balon d'Or and his predecessor in a duel for the ages." It is the "Game of the Millenium," and so on and so forth sing the Spanish press.
The problem is, that they are wrong.
This game is not about Messi and Ronaldo.
It is about much more.
For Real Madrid, the validity of Florentino's second "Galactico" project rests on the ability of his team to bring home titles. After being unceremoniously dumped out of the Copa del Rey and the Champions League by Alcorcón and Lyon respectively, the League is all they have left to play for.
Both Madrid and Barça are sitting on a record 77 points out of 90 possible. In a year when so few points are being dropped, the head-to-head result could prove decisive. Losing to Barça would bring the 300 million Euro project dangerously close to a trophy-less season.
For Barcelona, the game is less decisive. They are semifinalists in the Champions League, and have the credit from last year's six titles to fall back on. Memories of the historic 2-6 victory in the Bernabeu last season would make a loss tomorrow less painful as well.
That does not mean that Barça are taking the game lightly. Pep Guardiola has issued a strict ban on any players or club employees making statements to the press. He knows the rivalry between the clubs as well as anyone.
A loss would heap even more pressure on his dangerously thin squad. That is the last thing he wants before flying off to face Jose Mourinho's Internazionale.
The stakes are high, indeed.
They are so high, in fact, that the spectacle will likely suffer.
This will not be a game of free-flowing football. Pelligrini is too pragmatic to repeat Juande Ramos's mistake of setting out to attack. He will try to stifle Barcelona's creative players with asphyxiating pressure. The rhythm of the game will be broken by frequent fouls. Madrid will attack using their speed on the break.
Many analysts believe that if they can prevent Barça from playing, they will win through their superior pegada. This term, roughly translated as firepower, is seen as Madrid's principal quality.
They have been outplayed more than a few times this season, but often managed to prevail through attitude and pegada.
Madrid will also benefit from their early elimination from the Champions League—paradoxically enough—because they will be better rested. While Barcelona were putting Arsenal to the sword, Madrid were able to rest and prepare.
With Ibrahimovic and Kaká both missing out through injury, there is a temptation to focus on Messi and Ronaldo. Ronaldo emphasized this point in a recent press conference.
"Everyone is talking about me, and about Messi, but we aren't the only two playing. It is not an individual battle", said an unusually modest Ronaldo.
Yet even he succumbed to temptation when he declared, "I don't think Messi will score another four goals, but anything is possible. I hope to take home the ball from the Clásico."
Hat tricks aside, we would do well to remember that this is not a battle of two individuals, but a high stakes contest between the two best sides in Spain.
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